The Gold of the Incas
Over 5,000 years ago, high in the Andes mountains, the Incas began to cultivate quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) as one of their staple crops, believing that it gave power and stamina to their warriors. Quinoa was also used in their ceremonial rituals. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in South America in the sixteenth century, they burned and destroyed the quinoa fields as part of the effort to annihilate Inca culture. But quinoa survived by growing wild in the mountains or by being cultivated in secret in small quantities. In the 1980s, two North Americans stumbled upon this ancient, super-nutritious food and began cultivating it near Boulder, Colorado. Since then, quinoa's popularity has exploded worldwide.
Getting to Know Quinoa
Although it is cooked and eaten like a grain, quinoa is technically a seed, and is related to spinach, chard and beets. It grows best in mountainous regions, 10 thousand feet or more above sea level, and thrives in poor soil, thin air and extreme weather. Quinoa stalks are 3 to 6 feet tall, and each plant can produce up to a cup of seeds! The seeds are round, about the same size of millet or sesame seeds, and come in a rainbow of colors, from red to purple to green to yellow, but the quinoa that is most commonly found in stores is an off-white color. Look for quinoa in the bulk section of natural food stores, or in the organic section of conventional supermarkets.
A Complete Protein and so Much More
Quinoa is a complete protein, which means that it contains all the amino acids necessary for our nutritional needs. Complete proteins are rare in the plant world, making quinoa an excellent food for vegetarians and vegans, or for anyone looking for healthy protein source. It's also high in iron and calcium, and is a good source of manganese, magnesium and copper, as well as fiber.
Cooking With Quinoa
Most commercially available quinoa has already been cleaned, but you should still give it a thorough rinsing before cooking to be sure to remove any remaining saponins, a soapy resin that protects the seeds while they are growing, but can impart a bitter taste if not removed. Combine one cup rinsed quinoa to two cups water or broth, bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until the seeds become translucent and the germ of the seed uncoils to form a little "tail." Quinoa has a light, slightly nutty taste and a fluffy texture. It makes a tasty porridge or casserole and can be added to soups and stews.
The Gluten-free Grain of Choice
Quinoa is naturally gluten-free, making it an excellent food for celiac patients or other people following a gluten-free diet. Quinoa flour is great for baking cookies, breads and muffins, and quinoa flakes are a perfect substitute for oatmeal.